Category Archives: fiction

You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

My eyes!  My eyes!

How does great pacing so capture the reader’s attention that you can’t look away… even if you really don’t want to see what happens next? (It’s baaaaaad!  I can’t look away!)


Through every specific techniques, that’s how.

First, let’s talk about what the word riveting really means to the reader.  I believe a reader can only be riveted at the scene level, by action (including dialog) unfolding in real time.

When a reader is riveted, she’s captured by the story, hooked in a way that keeps her turning pages to see—not how the story will end—but what’s on the very next page.

The reader may be shocked at what happened in past scenes and worried about future outcomes, but to be riveted by a story requires that the current scene fully capture the reader’s attention RIGHT NOW. This holds for both stories that have a more languid pace and stories with a high-thrill, fast pace.

Riveting Techniques

1) Keep your characters off balance.

When characters interact with each other (or with the plot), it can be compared to dancing. There are steps that make sense, responses that are expected.  He says something, she makes a logical reply.  She does something, he counters.

The biggest trick to creating riveting fiction is to stop taking the expected next dance step.  Keep your characters and reader slightly off balance at all times in a way that is provocative, unexpected, and unscripted, yet totally believable and serves the story you’re telling.

If your character says to someone, “Good morning,” the boring response is an expected reply. Readers can skip that.  Instead, make the reply un-skip-able.

Possible replies to keep the scene off balance:

  • “Don’t you start with me!”
  • “You only say that because you like pain and suffering.”
  • “You’re fired.”

Another example: If your character is holding divorce papers and approaching her husband, you expect that she’ll say she has the papers and hold them out.  He’ll probably be pissed off or sad or remorseful.  It will be a standard scene we’ve seen hundreds of times before.

Let’s look at off-balance alternatives:

  • She puts the papers away and never mentions them.
  • She turns away from her husband, walks over to the woman she knows he’s seeing, and gives the papers to her.
  • She shows him the papers and says, “Do you think these will hold up?  After all, I know this isn’t your real name, is it?”

2) Make it clear that the very next word, the very next action matters.


  • By showing that your characters are paying attention. They’re worried.  They’re relying on what’s happening now to make choices and guidetheir  responses.
  • By focusing the scene–what’s actually being discussed or what’s happening–on a key puzzle piece that belongs to the picture of your plot.

3) Focus on the fascinating stuff.

Even mundane details can be fascinating in the hands of an adept writer.  So this isn’t about leaving out the small, rich details that make scenes authentic.

Fascinating stuff is the stuff that readers want to know more about because the detail creates a powerful mental image, changes what they thought they knew, or gives them access to an unknown world.

4) Go somewhere important with your details.

If your details (dialog, action, prose) never ends up anywhere, if it’s just there for the sake of words, then your readers will feel tricked.  They thought you were telling a riveting story.  Instead, you were just chatting over coffee.  “Shooting the breeze,” as my Dad used to say.

Don’t put divorce papers in a story where the divorce actually doesn’t matter and the character doesn’t care.

Enough said.

And now for a few pacing questions to help you create riveting scenes. Continue reading You Can’t Look Away: Pacing & The Riveting Story

Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

Quick, think of a scene that has great pacing.  Got it?  Great.  Did you think of people fleeing for their lives?  Maybe a hero and villain fighting it out?  What about a car chase?

Okay, consider this: every scene, no matter how relaxed the characters, no matter how law abiding and ordinary the focus, can have great pacing.

InterestingIt’s easy to confuse the concept of pacing with action, because those are the examples we typically talk about. But you can have great pacing in any scene.  Just as any scene can sag (no matter how much blood is being spilled).

Think of the quiet books you’ve read.  The ones that were not driven by the need to solve a murder or stop the world from exploding.  How does something so “slow” capture our attention as readers? Something kept you turning pages. What was it?

Now think of the mind-numbing action scenes where it was one punch after another, so you skimmed over it.

Yeah, action can be boring.

New, Fresh, & Unexpected

The answer to both the quiet scene that works and the active scene that doesn’t is that good pacing requires something new, fresh, and unexpected be unfolding right before the readers eyes.

What does this mean?

As soon as your reader understands what’s happening, imagine her or him putting a checkmark by that paragraph. “Got it!” she says.

If your next paragraph is more of the same, no matter how interesting, your reader will put another checkmark and say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got it.”  If the next paragraph is the same, the reader won’t even bother with a check mark. She’ll roll her eyes a bit, and say, “Get on with it.”

This “get on with it” response—this is pacing failure.

What you really want is a response like, “Oh, really!” or “Oh, my!” or “No way!”

If we are in a chase scene, chasing alone isn’t interesting enough to create good pacing.  The next paragraph of the chase must contain something new, fresh, and unexpected.

If the character is wounded and running for his life, the next paragraph cannot just be more of the character being wounded and running.  It must contain something fresh.

If the scene is about a mother and daughter talking about their day and how the mother is going to make dinner, the next paragraph needs to contain something fresh & unexpected, even if it’s “quiet.”

Behind scenes that work, even quiet scenes, is a framework built out of new information.

And now for a few pacing tips and tricks to bring something fresh to your scenes. Ask the following questions at the paragraph level,  the “unit of action” level, and the scene level. Continue reading Pacing and the Thirst for Something Fresh (Blood Optional)

How to Be a Pacing Genius

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes 

It’s interesting to talk to writers about pacing, because the answer you very often get is, “Write in shorter sentences!” 

This answer is the equivalent of answering the question, “How do you get a reader’s attention?” with the pithy reply, “Use a bigger font.”

Ah… gee, thanks.


I’ve made it my mission over the last few years to gain deep insight into pacing–what works, what doesn’t, and why. (Hint: Always have a mission.  It keeps you looking young.)

9 Advanced Techniques in Pacing Your Novel (that you won’t hear anywhere else)

I’ve come up with a unique take on pacing, and in the following 9 Fiction-Zone articles, I’m going to share everything I know.

These 9 insights create a definition that radically changed how I view pacing in my own work.

Most people define pacing as “going faster.”  Here’s my definition:

Fresh &


Stuff that Matters (consequences and emotions)

Happening in Real Time (even if it’s just learning about something)

That Causes Immediate Reaction

With an Unknown Outcome

That Changes the Game

For at Least One Character

And the Reader.


That Looks Obvious

Yeah, but it’s not.  Because there are tricks to each of the 9 elements.  It’s all comes down to…

  1. Perspective,
  2. Involvement,
  3. Scale, and
  4. Sincerity.

I’m going to show you how to apply these tricks and techniques to transform your stories.

Take the Pacing Test:

Think of the scene in your current manuscript that you believe has the best pacing…

–> Where would you rate this scene on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “almost comatose” and 10 being “the best example of pacing ever!”

–> Do you think it has good pacing because of the scene events, your writing, or the meaning of the scene?

Bookmark this site, so you don’t miss the 9 Pacing Techniques.  And follow me on Twitter @pitchuniversity and FaceBook to be notified of the latest post.


Diane Holmes Crop 1Diane writes two, alternating columns for Freelance-Zone: Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and Marketing-Zone:Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

She’s the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University – “Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it.  Learn.  Pitch.  Sell.”

Scene Magic: Your Character’s Emotional Set Point – Part 2

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

In Part 1 we discussed how motivation is not the same as emotion, and the character’s emotion in a scene may have little to do with the grand “story goal & motivation” and a lot to do with what just happened in the previous scene.  And now… Part 2.

Is Your Character Emotionally Fickle?

Two places where your ability to create 3D characters intersects with your ability to craft dynamic & powerful scenes are…

  • How your viewpoint character embodies a focused emotion that makes sense in the scene, and
  • What (if anything) causes your viewpoint character to shift her or his emotional focus.

Your character walks onto the “scene stage” with a certain emotion at a certain intensity. I call this the Character’s Emotional Set Point.

emotional intensity

6 Ways to Avoid Fickle Characters

Here are six things you need to know about your character’s emotional set point to avoid fickle characters.  (Oh, no!  Not a fickle character!  The horror of it!)

#1 Probably stating the obvious here, but the emotion/intensity needs to make sense to the reader.

#2 The emotional set point shouldn’t be forgotten or dropped during the scene at any time. “Oops, I forgot to be grief-stricken about that pesky murder of my wife, because my neighbor is at the door, and I really want her recipe for Marshmallow Surprise… so happy!”

#3 A character’s emotional set point can change intensity or change to a different emotion entirely, but never without a reason that makes sense to the character and the reader. “So, happy, wait… now I’m really frustrated so just roll with me on this, wait, I’m so alone…..”

#4 The reason for change usually needs to have heft, otherwise you’re telling the reader that (a) the original emotion wasn’t important, (b) the character is easily swayed by every emotional “wind” that blows through and is, thus, shallow, and (c) the new emotion can’t be trusted.

#5 The emotion needs to be showcased against the character’s scene goal (and what actually happens in the scene). If your character is feeling hopeful, then we need to understand and experience that emotion in the context of the unfolding scene. It is not something that waits in the car, while the character is busy.

#6 If you haven’t specifically looked at your character’s emotional set-point and how it’s impacted throughout each scene, you might have written a fickle character. Time to de-fickle your book.

To Do:

  • Track the emotion throughout the scene, front to back..
  • Compare the emotion in the narrative to the emotion in the dialogue.
  • Look for places where the emotion is missing or not clear.
  • Make sure changes happen in a believable way.

How do you maintain your character’s emotional integrity?  Share your insights with me!

Diane Holmes Crop 1Diane writes two columns for Freelance-Zone:

  • Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and
  • Marketing-Zone: Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

She’s also the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University – “Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it. Learn. Pitch. Sell.”

Scene Magic: Your Character’s Emotional Set Point – Part 1

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

Character Meets Scene

“A character walks into a scene…”  not with a priest or rabbi, but with a goal and an emotion. 


That’s not usually how it’s taught.  We writers tend to discuss a character’s goal, or a scene goal, or story goal in a rather factual, stand-alone way. (Or in an excited way that reflects our writing excitement and not the character’s excitement.)

But every character starts with an emotion in place.

Motivation is Not the Same as Emotion

I hear ya.  You’re thinking, “You mean motivation!” 

Actually. not at all, and that’s why this is important to talk about as writers. 

#1  Motivation is not required to be emotional in nature, although it often is. 

#2  Having chosen a motivation that is related to emotion doesn’t automatically mean the emotion is showing up on the page like it should.  (Sometimes authors have powerful motivation, but they forget to demonstrate the emotion, because it seems obvious to them.)

#3 Most motivations don’t have a 1-to-1 correlation to a single emotion that never changes over the course of the story.  

(You may be motivated, for example, to get a college degree because your parents invested all their hopes in you, and you never want to struggle the way they did, but in this scene… are you happy, frustrated, joyful, nervous?)

#4 The motivation that generates a specific emotion, may not have much to do with the dominant emotion in the present scene. Characters (same as you and I) have emotions all the time that have nothing to do with the motivations that propel our goals.

For example, maybe today you’re frustrated because your car wouldn’t start and had to be jumped.  This isn’t how you wanted your morning to go.   Now you’re in class, listening to the lecture, and you’re still frustrated. 

But this doesn’t have anything to do with your goal to get a college degree.  You didn’t fail a class because of this.  The school didn’t kick you out.  But you are under emotional stress.

So, when you think of emotion…

Think of the emotion your character is actually feeling right now, based on what has happened, what  is happening, and what your character fears will happen, plus your character’s personality, his or her stress level, fears, hopes, etc.

<To be continued….>

–> Have you spotted an emotionally fickle character?  Report your sighting here.

Diane Holmes Crop 1Diane writes two columns for Freelance-Zone:

  • Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery and
  • Marketing-Zone: Marketing-Zone: Marketing Yourself and Your Book.

She’s also the Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University – “Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it.  Learn.  Pitch.  Sell.”

How to Write Captivating Fiction– 3 Lessons from Dick Francis

Fiction-Zone: Leaps in Fiction Mastery by Diane Holmes

“Be Original.”

Most writers have heard that advice. And most writers think they’re original, but they’re not. The words are rearranged, but everything is just one or two degrees off exactly what we’ve read before. The expected. The usual. The awful ordinary.


Why aren’t we original if we’re trying so hard to BE original? Maybe it’s because our love for the story archetypes or forms is too great and we hold on way too tight, confusing the minute details of the story with the love we feel.

There is a delicious goodness, a savory warmth to all our different novel forms. Some forms become genres or types, because we revel in their goodness so much. We say, “More of that!” And in our desire to give and receive “more of that,” we recite familiar terrain.

  • Characters say the same things in the same situations.
  • Settings are delivered with expected bows and wrapping.
  • Plot twists come and go like dancers on a wind-up music box.

Always the same dancers, same song.

And all of that comes from attempts to be original. (“Hey, these are MY characters in My story! He didn’t say, ‘Stop or I’ll shoot you!’ He said, ‘Don’t make me cause your death!’ It’s original.”)

Yeah. So forget original. All that comes of that is we’re original in the same ways. And frankly, original does not mean interesting. You can be original and boring. No one wants that.

This is your call to be something more. Be captivating.

It turns out that the greatest originality is not what’s in YOUR writerly mind, but in what happens in the mind of the reader.

When you’re trying to be original, the focus is on you, the writer. The reader is unmoved, because the reader isn’t being “original-ed.” But when we talk “captivating,” now the reader’s involved. Because it’s the reader who is captivated. The reader is caught up breathless, suspended over the lexicon of imagination on paper and busy story-making in her own mind.

How to Be Captivating – A Lesson from Dick Francis

Opening sentence of Decider by Dick Francis

OK, so here I am, Lee Morris, opening doors and windows to gusts of life and early death.

#1 Take the readers into unchartered waters.

Holy cow. What an opening. Is it original? Yes. But more than that, it’s captivating, fanciful, poetic, and full of Lee’s point of view. And better yet, I don’t know where this will go. I’m off balance, in uncharted story-waters and eager to find out more.

They looked pretty harmless on my doorstep: two middle-aged civil Englishmen in country-gent tweeds and flat caps, their eyebrows in unison raised inquiringly, their shared expression of embarrassed anxiety.

“Lee Morris?” one of them said, his diction clipped, secure, expensive. “Could we speak to him?”

“Selling insurance?” I asked dryly.

Their embarrassment deepened.

“No, actually. . .”

Late March evening, sun low and strong, gold light falling sideways onto their benign faces, their eyes achingly narrowed against the glare. They stood a pace or two from me, careful not to crowd. Good manners all around.

I realized that I knew one of them by sight, and I spent a few extended seconds wondering why on earth he’d sought me out on a Sunday a long way from his normal habitat.

During this pause three small boys padded up the flagstoned passage from the depths of the house behind me, concentratedly threaded a way around me and one through the pair beyond and silently climbed like cats up into the fuzzy bursting-leaf-bud embrace of an ancient spreading oak nearby on the lawn. There the three figures rested, becoming immobile, lying on their stomachs along the old boughs, half seen, intent secretive, deep in an espionage game.

The visitors watched in bemusement.

“You’d better come in,” I said. “They’re expecting pirates.”

#2 Follow Hidden Logic

There is so much that is captivating here! There is a logic that comes from Lee’s mind, and yet I cannot guess it in advance. I’m entertained in the best way; I’m busy learning the character, experiencing the unfolding of (yes, original) situation, and caught off-guard by character’s unusual wit.

#3 Infuse the scene with your genre’s tone, attitude, and sensibilities; don’t swing genre props at the reader like a mallet.

And yet, this fits well within an established genre: mystery/suspense. The story opens as the protagonist opens the door to death. Something is out of place (the two men) and therefore not quite right. His boys are playing an espionage game (the game of lies), and soon there will be pirates (the game of villains and violence).

And it has all intruded on this unsuspecting, innocent day.

How wicked.

How terribly… captivating.

  • Evil villain laughing maniacally = 0
  • Tortured victims of serial killers = 0
  • Burned out ex-cops = 0
  • Jack-ass boss/politician/reporter/ex-spouse = 0

So, today, is your writing captivating? Tell me what you did to captivate your reader.

Diane Holmes Crop 1Diane is Founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University.

“Learn to pitch your book from the AGENTS and EDITORS who make their living at it.  Learn.  Pitch.  Sell.”